Guntersville Dam, one of three hydroelectric dams on the Tennessee River in north Alabama, is located in Marshall County, seven miles northwest of the city of Guntersville. The dam was completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1939 and continues to be maintained and owned by the TVA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The lake is the largest in Alabama and the second largest of all TVA-operated projects.
Prior to the dam's construction, the Tennessee River was too shallow to navigate in many areas around Guntersville, and regional farmers suffered severe crop losses during flooding periods. In 1914, the USACE officials recommended constructing a dam about five miles upstream from the present dam, but the U.S. Congress did not make money available. In 1935, the newly established Tennessee Valley Authority agreed with USACE's recommendations and authorized a dam at Guntersville to extend a navigation channel beyond Wheeler Lake, which was under construction at the time. The goals of the New Deal project were to create a continuous navigational channel along the entire length of the Tennessee River and control flooding while promoting economic development and electricity generation in the region.
The federal government purchased 110,145 acres of land for the project, of which 24,426 acres were woodland. Many of the trees were cut for timber or firewood and the underbrush was burned. Nearly 1,200 families as well as numerous graves and cemeteries were relocated to higher ground in the county. Some farmers were compensated for the loss of land. Federal workers transported houses on rollers to their new sites and burned some older farm houses and buildings. USACE workers raised the old Guntersville Highway (present-day U.S. Highway 431) to preserve the main route through Guntersville, constructed access roads to the dam from both sides of the river, and rerouted some connecting county roads.
In addition, the enterprise prompted the largest archaeological project in Alabama history, resulting in the recovery of artifacts from dozens of Cherokee Indian sites that were subsequently flooded. Investigators from the Alabama Museum of Natural History located several hundred archaeological sites. Led by archaeologists from the University of Alabama, 23 of the most important sites were excavated by the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration. The team collected human remains as well as numerous artifacts, including pottery, bowls, beads, stone tools, amulets, iron implements, bone and antler items, and burial goods, and brought them to an archaeological lab in Birmingham for restoration and classification. A portion of the collection is on display in the Indian Artifact Room at the Guntersville Museum, and the remainder is with the University of Alabama and the Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum.
The TVA began construction of the dam on December 4, 1935, and completed it on January 24, 1939. The project used 295,700 cubic yards of concrete and 4,600 tons of reinforcing steel while employing a crew of 1,800 men, three of whom died during the construction. The dam generates 140,400 kilowatts of electricity with four hydraulic turbines and four generators. It stands 94 feet high and 3,979 feet wide. Water below the dam averages 20 to 30 feet deep. At a cost of $51 million, it has been so far the most expensive project ever undertaken in Marshall County.
As the reservoir filled with water, it surrounded Guntersville, leaving the city sitting on a peninsula. To celebrate the completion of the dam and the formation of Guntersville Lake, city officials and residents sponsored a hydroplane boat race in the summer of 1939 that drew more than 60,000 people. Guntersville Lake stretches 75 miles from Nickajack Dam in southeast Tennessee to Guntersville Dam and encompasses 67,900 acres with 949 miles of shoreline. Its average depth is 15 feet with a maximum at 60 feet in the river channel.
The dam has two locks. The USACE built a 60-by 350-foot lock at the same time as the dam; it was replaced in 1965 with a 110-by 600-foot lock to handle increased barge traffic on the river. The main lock can lift and lower boats or barges up to 600 feet in length and can raise vessels up to 45 feet in height to account for the elevation differenc between Lake Guntersville and Wheeler Lake. It takes about 45 to 60 minutes to go through the lock. Commercial traffic has priority, but lock operators try to accommodate recreational boats on every third lock. Barge traffic along the river has been steady since the dam was built. Terminals at the Port of Guntersville handle the processing and distributing of grain, petroleum, and wood products for several large companies. For a brief time in the 1940s, barges transported new cars that were then loaded on car carriers at the port and taken to area dealers.
The lake is considered a lowland lake and is riddled with stump beds and milfoil grass, providing an excellent environment for fishing, for which it is well known. The lake holds the distinction of being one of the most productive largemouth bass lakes to fish in winter. The milfoil and hydrilla weed beds provide habitat for many fish and attract major fishing tournaments like the Bass Masters. In addition, the Bass Anglers Sportsmen Society and Field and Stream magazine have named the lake one of America's finest sport fishing lakes and Southern Living magazine readers voted it the best lake in Alabama. The lower end of the lake is generally the most populated area, with several bass and catfish species as well as bluegill, crappie, perch, sauger, sunfish, and drum. Several anglers have caught catfish in Guntersville Lake in excess of 80 pounds. Crappie, however, is the top sport fish catch on the lake for most anglers.
Surrounding the lake are Lake Guntersville State Park, Buck's Pocket State Park, and Cathedral Caverns State Park. Also in the vicinity are numerous city and county parks, state wildlife centers, campgrounds, camping resorts, marinas,
boat ramps, public access areas, and commercial recreational areas. The city of Guntersville has enhanced the shoreline with
four major public walking and biking trails. The city's recreational facilities along the lake include a fishing pier, band
shelter, recreation center and swimming pool, senior center, many outdoor sports facilities, and playground and picnic areas.
There are also picnic areas and hiking trails on both sides of the river at the dam. A big summer attraction is the sunset
exodus of thousands of gray bats from a large bat cave just south of the dam, but they are best viewed from boats anchored
in the river.
Smith, Larry J. Guntersville Remembered. Guntersville, Ala.: Creative Publishers, 1989.
Angela C. Otts
Published July 15, 2010
Last updated April 9, 2013